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The mother of invention: How one woman channels her passion for art and fashion

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Helen Steele pictured enjoying Dylan Hotel's Halloween banquet to celebrate the relaunch of its restaurant and to welcome the new head chef, Mark Bodie

Helen Steele pictured enjoying Dylan Hotel's Halloween banquet to celebrate the relaunch of its restaurant and to welcome the new head chef, Mark Bodie

Helen Steele with Joanna Kiernan for the one to one interview

Helen Steele with Joanna Kiernan for the one to one interview

Helen Steele pictured enjoying Dylan Hotel's Halloween banquet to celebrate the relaunch of its restaurant and to welcome the new head chef, Mark Bodie

'In a way it's like depression, if people don't talk about it, then you go through it by yourself, but when other people talk about it then it is cathartic," artist Helen Steele explains.

Helen is the only person I have ever interviewed to suggest meeting in an ice cream parlour, her favourite - Murphy's Ice Cream on Wexford Street - and when we get there she knows exactly what she is having.

Ironically, as we sit down to our chocolate brownie and ice-cream feast, her recent revelations about her struggle with a 20-year eating disorder, come up.

"I got about five or six emails from different women of all ages who had gone through the same; one woman was eighty and she emailed me saying 'look this is something that I have had all of my life'. It's mental..." Helen gasps.

Helen decided to open up about her experience to reveal the physical reality of life after an eating disorder. She now has osteoporosis of the lower spine and in her right wrist, she lost teeth due to lack of calcium and at the height of her illness, in her early twenties, her hair was falling out.

On reflection Helen now knows that what she was trying to achieve was "not real". It is a harsh lesson, which she hopes to pass on to her two teenage daughters.

"Unfortunately, in the world we live in everything is visual and everything is instant, and to a certain extent if you don't fit into a certain criteria, a certain shape or form, there is alienation and I didn't want them to think that this was right," Helen tells me. "This ridiculous expectation to be this constant vision of perfection; that's not real and it's not what we should be so absorbed with - it's such a waste of time and so unnecessary!"

Positive

Helen has also taken to spreading this positive body image message, in her own subtle way, throughout her work in the fashion industry.

"I was purposely trying to use models who weren't too thin and maybe who weren't blonde and of all different nationalities for a while," she explains. "Then more recently I thought 'you know what? I'm not actually going to use models; I'm going to use girls who I think are just really naturally pretty.' So in my most recent collection I used this Lithuanian girl who lives in the rural village that we live in. She is just a really beautiful country girl and her shape is normal, she is not an eight, she is not a ten and I think that is really important.

"I remember doing castings for London Fashion Week and saying I can't hire that girl, she is too thin, she just looks ill. When you have gone through having an eating disorder yourself you can see the signs, there were so many of those poor girls who were just totally consumed by it."

Originally from Maynooth, Co Kildare, Helen now lives an idyllic existence amidst the "mucky hills" of in Emyvale, Co Monaghan. Her studio is housed in a converted old quail factory close to her husband's family-run Silver Hill Duck Farm.

"It was love that took me there. I fell in love with my husband, got married and moved up," Helen smiles.

"Originally I hated it," she admits. "I had spent my life living in Dublin and Maynooth and London, so it was just such a culture shock. You go from bumping into people and having people always calling in, to just total isolation, which I now love.

"I love the peace and quiet and I love that you can run outside in your pyjamas and sit in the grass with the dog and the kids and have your breakfast; no one can see you and you can wander around the garden at night time - again in your pyjamas. I really love that freedom."

Helen's home seems like a fitting sanctuary, from what can often be the cold and manic business of both art and fashion; a place to inspire and allow the creativity that has defined her success the necessary room to breathe and grow. It is not surprising that from her isolated studio in Co Monaghan, Helen has managed to recieve global recognition for her work, first as an award winning artist and later in fashion.

Proud owners of Helen's artwork include the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, designer Diane Von Furstenberg, actor Donald Sutherland and supermodel Helena Christiansen and her fashion collections have been a hit with the likes of Rita Ora, Ellie Goulding, Pixie Lott, Ferne Cotton and Cara Delevigne to name but a few.

When Delevigne was spotted wearing one of Helen's pieces to Glastonbury last year, the silk, floral bomber jacket, filled with duck down from the family farm had sold out within hours.

Focus

"It's absolutely fantastic to get an endorsement like that," Helen beams. "I know a lot of people say 'don't believe the press' because a lot of it is just ego, but when press actually drives sales then that is really good. I couldn't make those Cara jackets fast enough, it was the end of season and yet people still wanted them. I have been pretty lucky in that sense."

However, despite the big name endorsements and exciting reviews, Helen keeps her feet on the ground and her mind focused on her work.

"I remember someone asking me before is it about money or art - it was always about the art. But I have three children and both my husband and I work," she explains. "I suppose it is an expensive time when you have three kids and you want to give them the best in life, sending them to good schools and giving them the best start you possibly can. So I have to make money. It is an important part of it."

Helen disagrees with what she sees as a growing trend of companies and designers taking on young people with an interest in fashion as interns and not paying them for their work.

"The younger generations coming up would have a great input into my work and if I can't afford to pay them something, there is no way I'm taking them on. It just makes me sick and so many people abuse that internship scheme," Helen says.

"When I finished college I went and worked in a few different factories, learning the trade, tailoring, pattern cutting. I can remember learning from five or six different pattern cutters and it would have been this tradition passed on in their families, but because there is no financial incentive and no support this is diminishing. I am really hoping that the new Minister for Arts and the Irish Design 2015 initiative will make some sort of inroads into supporting what has been neglected. Rant over, sorry!" Helen laughs.

Faith

But it is a topic which Helen is understandably exercised about. She has been there and she has taken that leap of faith, she has - if you'll excuse the pun - got the T-shirt.

"I was bat sh*t crazy!" Helen laughs. "Mind you, there is an incredible organisation called Intertrade Ireland that I started my business with the help of, under their fusion grant and without that I wouldn't have been able to do it."

Helen feels that the current economic environment has made entrepreneurship and creativity in general too high a risk for many Irish people.

"There should be some kind of incentive for people. You can have your token ads telling people look out for guaranteed Irish, but that's not actually hitting home. Even young entrepreneurs, who are starting these businesses off - give them some incentives, don't crucify them and if it doesn't work out they have nothing. It's ridiculous, we give all of these massive tax incentives to foreign industry, yet we often don't properly support our own entrepreneurs."

All of Helen's manufacturing is done in Ireland, something which she is very proud of. The mother of three is a whirlwind of industry. But there is, she assures me, no routine to her daily life.

"It's chaos," Helen's eyes twinkle at the thought. "Whatever is most urgent at that moment gets done."

As well as her fashion work, Helen currently has an exhibition of her artwork in Austria, she is working on limited edition canvasses ahead of Christmas for a number of her corporate clients and has begun work on a series of what she describes as 'really trippy' illustrated children's books, that are expected to be released next year.

"I am really busy, thank God," she smiles, as we finish our ice cream, not taking one bit of it for granted.


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